UCL News


Living in rural England linked to better memory performance

30 January 2023

People aged 50 and over who live in rural England do better in memory tests than counterparts who live in English towns and cities, according to a new study led by UCL researchers.

English field in spring

The study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, looked at the results of memory tests taken by two nationally representative population samples, whose participants were aged 50 and over, in England and China.

The research team sought to find out if memory performance and memory decline over eight years could be linked to factors such as education, wealth and whether or not people lived in rural or urban areas, and whether these factors were different in the two countries.

They found that in England, living in a rural area was linked to a significantly better performance in memory tests and that this link remained after taking into account the effects of education and wealth.

In China, by contrast, living in a rural area was linked to much poorer memory performance as well as a steeper decline in memory (over an average of three years).

The researchers suggested better access to outdoor green spaces might explain the advantage in memory tests among rural dwellers in England*, while in China, they noted that the rural population had less access to education and cultural engagement.

Having less education and less household wealth, meanwhile, were associated with worse memory performance in both England and China, and in China, were also linked to a steeper decline in memory.

The study looked at data from 6,687 participants of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), who answered questions every two years between 2010 and 2019, as well as from 10,252 participants of the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), who responded to questions between 2011 and 2018.

Lead author Dr Dorina Cadar (UCL Behavioural Science & Health and Brighton and Sussex Medical School) said: “This specific cross-country examination of socioeconomic and contextual factors on memory decline revealed several aspects. First is that English participants had overall higher baseline memory scores and declined less over time, while the Chinese respondents started with significantly lower scores and dropped a bit faster. Second, the access to education and pattern of lifestyle behaviours influencing overall health and cognitive performance might be different between England and China.

“Furthermore, the difference in baseline memory scores could be related to the overall lower level of literacy in China (up to 70-80% of the population). However, as demonstrated here, socioeconomic and contextual differences had a significant influence on cognitive health, especially in China, and more needs to be done to reduce socioeconomic inequalities around the world.”

Senior author Professor Andrew Steptoe (UCL Behavioural Science & Health) said: “Comparisons across countries like this one are important, both for estimating the burden of memory decline and dementia risk as we get older and for understanding the factors contributing to these changes. Some factors, such as education, may be protective across the board. But others, such as whether you live an urban or rural life, appear to vary in their association with cognitive function in the two countries we studied.”

*The research team cited a study that suggested access to green outdoor spaces may be linked to better brain health: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/11/5/e043456



  • Credit: iStock / Khrizmo. ‘English field in spring’.

Media contact

Mark Greaves

T: +44 (0)7990 675947

E: m.greaves [at] ucl.ac.uk